- Interview by
- David Broder
From Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of Labour to Bernie Sanders’s primary campaigns, the veteran socialists who surged to prominence in recent years often couldn’t pull the wider left behind their leadership. Yet things seem to be going rather differently for Jean-Luc Mélenchon, whose France Insoumise movement has imposed its hegemony over the established parties of the French left. His 22 percent score in April’s presidential elections, even as other weaker progressives floundered, not only defied pollsters’ expectations but put his movement in a strong position for June’s parliamentary elections.
Neoliberal hawk Emmanuel Macron remains president, following his runoff win against the far-right Marine Le Pen on April 24. Yet these upcoming elections will decide the formation of the National Assembly, and thus of the next government. This is why the Union Populaire that backed Mélenchon’s campaign has, this week, formed a new union of left-wing forces for June’s elections, also embracing the Green, Communist, and Socialist parties. Their Nouvelle Union Populaire écologique et social (NUPES) aims to make Mélenchon prime minister and stop Macron from railroading through his own agenda of pension cuts and handouts to the richest.
Bringing together such parties is a rare feat in recent history — indeed, the different forces of the French left and center left have often been implacable enemies. The neoliberalized Socialist Party, which ruled under François Hollande’s presidency in 2012–17, implemented major attacks on the French labor and welfare models, and in recent days, many figures associated with Hollande’s administration — in practice, today supporters of Macron — have fiercely denounced all talks with Mélenchon, labeling him soft on Islamism and antibusiness. Through the presidential race, he was often subject to harsh polemical attacks by the Green and Socialist candidates, while the Communists’ decision to run separately (unlike in the similar 2017 contest) was widely blamed for Mélenchon’s narrow failure to make the runoff.
Yet early signs for NUPES are good. The agreed-upon program consolidates the rise of a confrontational, transformative left over the husks of neoliberalized social democracy, offering hope that France can avoid the fate of countries where the Left has become a junior partner of liberalism. Mélenchon is not only the recognized leader of this coalition but has succeeded in forcing the other left-wing parties to rally around a radical program of ecological transition and rebuilding welfare, explicitly committing to reverse Hollande’s neoliberal labor law and to defy European Union treaties in order to enact its own program. Moreover, NUPES is currently polling neck and neck with, or even ahead of, the main other blocs, including both the neoliberal right around Macron and the currently divided far right.
Manon Aubry, a France Insoumise member of the EU Parliament, is herself engaged in the negotiations. She spoke to Jacobin’s David Broder about the changed political landscape and the Left’s hopes for the parliamentary elections.
You have made agreements with the other left-wing parties to run together in June’s parliamentary elections. How do you envisage this working: will the candidates all run on the same program, or is there just a baseline of agreement, and will activists from each force support the others’ candidates?
The agreement signed with the Greens, the Communists, and the Socialists is historic. The fact that we created this Nouvelle Union Populaire sociale et écologique the day after we celebrated the anniversary of the Front Populaire of 1936 has a strong political meaning for us. What we achieved after days (and nights!) of negotiations is much more than an agreement to share out constituencies. We have agreed on a full, ambitious program dealing with social, economic, ecological, and democratic issues. And our goal is to get a majority in June’s parliamentary elections and govern the country together.
In practice, this means there will be one candidate for NUPES in each constituency, supported by local activists from all the different parties, backing the same political objectives: to implement the common platform and make Jean-Luc Mélenchon prime minister.
The birth of NUPES can totally change the expected outcome of the parliamentary elections. The newly elected president is usually set to have a large majority in the National Assembly. But with this presidential election, it’s different. Most people who voted for Macron did so only to beat Le Pen. Two-thirds of French people do not want Macron to have a majority in parliament. And among the three political blocs (the neoliberal right led by Macron, the far right led by Le Pen, and the Left led by us), we are the only one which will be united for the first round. This is a game changer for the parliamentary elections, and the hope we create here can lead to strong mobilization among the left-wing electorate. We can win, and we will campaign with that goal.
The question of disobeying European Union rules was often invoked in media, especially by opponents of an agreement, as an insuperable barrier between you and these other forces. Your agreement with the Socialist Party acknowledges your differences on the EU and European Constitutional Treaty. Yet it also describes how other national governments have not respected European rules and declares that a left-wing government based on this agreement would be ready to “disobey” these rules, as necessary, without leaving the EU. Could you explain what this might look like in practice, and how it could promote wider change in the EU?
I have been part of the negotiation team for the common platform, and it requires time and long discussions if you want to actually create a credible political platform. In terms of economic policies, our joint agreed program includes green planning, the redistribution of wealth, the eradication of poverty, new institutions, a cap on prices, a pension age of sixty, a minimum income for young people, and so on. And all our political partners agreed on that. So we demonstrated that the theory of “irreconcilable forces on the Left” is just wrong. On most topics, we were able to find a common approach, and we will know what to do if we win the election in June.
The relationship toward the European Union was one of the main debates, because the words we use and the historical vision of the EU we have are not the same. But the strategy we published in January, during the presidential campaign, made it possible to find a common path on this topic. We know that the Greens, the Socialists, the Communists, and us do not agree on the long-term future of Europe, the creation of a federal state, and so on. This won’t change after two weeks of discussion together — and that was not our objective. What matters is to be able to agree on a common strategy toward European institutions if Jean-Luc Mélenchon becomes prime minister. Then the question is not whether you are pro- or anti-European but what opportunities and difficulties we will face at the European level in implementing our program.
And we all agree now that some European rules are incompatible with our proposals and need to be “disobeyed” if we want to apply our program. I’ll take a few examples. Competition law will prevent us from nationalizing strategic sectors (electricity, transport, etc.) or having school canteens with local, organic food. Austerity rules will prevent us from funding our social and Green New Deal. Certain parts of the Common Agricultural Policy will make it more difficult to put an end to agribusiness and shift to a socially and ecologically sustainable food production system. And so on and so forth. So there are two options: we can either lie to people, and do nothing when we win, or else say that on those specific rules we won’t respect European law.
This has nothing to do with what [far-right prime minister] Viktor Orbán is doing in Hungary. He is totally okay with the EU’s neoliberal rules: his strategy is to get rid of all democratic and human rights counterpowers at the national, European, and international levels. Our disobedience will be the opposite: First, it will be limited to applying our political program. Second, it will always respect a principle of non-regression — if we disobey, it will always be for more social, human, and ecological rights, never for less. And third, the idea is not to disobey because we want to; it is to create a struggle within the EU to bring other member states with us and obtain treaty changes in the medium term.
So we want to be realistic about how the EU works and ambitious about how we can change it. Disobedience has worked in the past to secure derogations or force the European Commission and Council to open up possibilities. For instance, Germany protected its water sector from privatization, and this was extended to other member states. France decided to protect its cultural sector (through regulated book pricing), and this was later accepted by European institutions. A coalition of states obtained the possibility of banning genetically modified crops on their national territory after a ten-year battle with the EU. There was the same story recently with Spain intervening on energy prices at the beginning of the crisis, which forced the commission to present a plan allowing member states to regulate energy prices. Disobedience is also used every day for the wrong reasons by liberals, especially Macron. No one would say that Macron is pushing for a Frexit. But he does not respect European rules on air pollution, the development of renewable energies, working hours in the military, the protection of personal data, and so on.
So it’s time to end the race to the bottom at the EU level in terms of social or ecological protection. We will not implement EU rules if they are less ambitious and protective than our national regulation in terms of human, ecological, and social rights.
The agreement with the Socialists was also notable for the explicit commitment to reverse some of the Hollande administration’s key measures, including the precarization of employment relations through the so-called El Khomri law (or “Loi Travail”).
Our discussion with the Socialists was really open, and I was actually surprised about their willingness to turn the page on Hollande. They agreed almost immediately to mention the repeal of El Khomri law (symbolic of Hollande’s antisocial policies) in our common platform.
In general, they were aware that the left-wing electorate in France now does not want only a shy move away from Macron’s policies but radical change. People want to tax the rich, cap the salaries of big CEOs, take control over multinational corporations, find homes for homeless people, increase pensions and social benefits to all the lowest-income households, increase wages, regulate dividends, and so on. And they also want radical action for the climate. They no longer believe Macron’s false promises; they want immediate action, because young people know that their very future is at stake. And I think the Socialists finally understood that, which is a really important move.
These parties reached an agreement on a joint program as well as on Jean-Luc Mélenchon as candidate for prime minister. But many of our readers will wonder why such an agreement wasn’t possible before — after 2017, when Mélenchon also scored strongly in the presidential election, or even before the 2022 presidential campaign, in which there were strong and personalized attacks on Mélenchon. What explains how this figure — so long accused of being divisive — has achieved a unity unprecedented at this national level in decades?
Well, the best answer to all the people saying that “Mélenchon is the problem for the Left” is what we just achieved! He managed to gather all the political forces within the Left on a clear political line, which hadn’t been done for decades. Not bad for a “divisive” figure!
But I also feel that the political situation is totally different from five years ago. In 2017, the Socialist Party was Hollande’s party. And he betrayed the Left’s ideals on pretty much everything, notably with his antisocial labor laws, his tax gifts for big corporations, and his stigmatization of dual nationals. So in 2017, we couldn’t even use the word “left-wing,” which had been so stained by Hollande’s policies. And we couldn’t ally with the Socialist Party, which had refused to choose between a liberal or a left-wing agenda.
Now 2022 is totally different. The Left was divided for the presidential election, but we had already won most cultural battles: about the relationship to the EU, about the need for tax justice and strong redistribution of wealth, about green planning rather than “incentives” and politely asking big corporations to stop destroying the planet, and so on. The result of the first round was really clear: we got twice as much as the rest of the Left combined. With 22 percent, we almost made the runoff, and took a huge score among young voters, deprived suburbs, city centers, DOM-TOM [overseas departments and territories], and so on. The left-wing electorate clearly said: What we want is a radical platform, not a center-left one. Jean-Luc Mélenchon then had the opportunity to organize a coalition on that basis.
We couldn’t have built NUPES five years ago because there was no political coherence onn the Left at that time. The situation now is different, and we can have the Communists, the Socialists, and the Greens running under the same banner and for the same platform. We faced the risk of a disappearance of the Left, like what happened in Italy. But we eventually managed to rebuild a strong political bloc that can challenge both Macron and the far right. I’m really proud of that. And this gives hope to millions of people in the country who want change.